Wondering whether you’ll ever make it to the C-suite? Recent research shows that the people who successfully make it to the corner office (and stay there) leverage a specific combination of luck, habits, behaviors, and mindset. Here’s what you need to know to claim your seat on the executive team as a C-level executive.

Recently, former management consultants Elena Bothelo and Kim Powell, co-authors of The CEO Next Door: The 4 Behaviors that Transform Ordinary People Into World Class Leaders, set out to research the following questions:

  • what are the keys that unlock the door to an executive office?
  • and what helps an executive stay there for the long haul?

To answer these queries, the two researchers called upon their work in a multi-year project called the CEO Genome, which analyzed a 10-year data set that included over 18,000 C-suite executives. They studied career paths, performance appraisals, hiring, and business results to glean insights about successful executive behaviors.

What behaviors/traits help an aspiring executive move into a C-level role?

The authors closely looked closely at what happened when candidates for C-level roles (a smaller sample of 113 executive job seekers) made it to final round interviews but didn’t take home a job offer. Here’s what they found:

  • 36% of the issues that blocked candidates related to “executive presence,” which, loosely defined, means the ability to act in a way that displays leadership qualities and inspires confidence from others. The authors found that people who seemed meek, appeared to lack confidence, and/or didn’t carry or groom themselves in line with expectations for leaders fell behind their peers in career momentum.
  • 28% of the concerns about these candidates coalesced around their communication skills. They found that candidates who hogged air time by talking too long, using complex vocabulary, or saying “I” twice as much as “we” in their interviews, had up to eight times less probability of being hired.
  • They also learned, to their dismay, that language/ethnic bias still strongly influences hiring. Language fluency affected candidates’ job offer success rates; those with a strong accent were 12x less likely to get a job offer unless they focused on improving their fluency and reducing their accent.
  • 29% of the candidates struggled because of their lack of peer collaboration. Many of these job seekers were talented, often with solid relationships with their own management and direct reports. When it came to managing cooperatively across an organization, however, these executives often took a siloed, competitive stance, which ultimately stunted their career progress.

In a separate analysis, the team also found that most candidates did not have a Hollywood-style, scripted executive-level career trajectory. For example, the vast majority of CEOs (93%) did not graduate from an Ivy League school, and 8% had no bachelors degree at all. Many of the C-level executives (45%) had some kind of major career mishap/misfortune in their past that hadn’t limited their progression into a C-suite role. And, perhaps most surprisingly, a third of CEOs described themselves as introverted, in contrast to the typical picture of a larger-than-life CEO personality.

What behaviors/traits help an aspiring executive STAY in a C-level role?

To figure out what helps C-level employees have career longevity, the authors analyzed a sample of 2600 executives across industries. Their research showed that certain behavior traits, habits and mindsets helped executives gain their coveted spot and then flourish.

Here are the factors that led to success for C-level executives:

  • Decision-making: They make decisions quickly, often with only 80% of the information they need. They see a decision as better than no action at all. They seek input from their teams for critical decisions, but give people a voice instead of a vote. Most importantly, they build structures and systems that allow their teams to take ownership of decision-making using clear frameworks.
  • Engagement for impact: They strike the balance between aspirational and transactional, helping connect people to their bigger goals and also the day-to-day reality. They neither create conflict nor avoid it; they build strong relationships and encourage collaboration.
  • Reliability: The authors call this trait “relentless reliability,” based on their findings that successful executives are known for following up, keeping everyone informed, showing up on time, and holding themselves personally accountable at all times.
  • Boldness/Adaptation: They’re not afraid to change direction when the situation warrants it, take risks, ask big questions that don’t have answers yet, and set far-reaching goals for the organization.

Key Takeaway:

Executives who thrive cultivate a set of habits and behaviors, many of which can be learned and practiced. The authors’ in-depth research shows that becoming a successful C-level executive isn’t all about education, lucky breaks, or aggressive political posturing on the way to the top. On the contrary, successful executives hold themselves to a high standard of behavior and expect the same of people around them.

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